A few days ago—or maybe it was weeks, time after all has been out of joint lately—my colleague, Tim Morton, tweeted something interesting. It seems to have sincebeen deleted, so I’ll have to paraphrase it from a memory whose reliability has already been called into question. But Morton said something like this: the humanities are science from the future. Without them, science becomes mere scientism, which is a religion. The comment has stuck with me.
At my school, teaching medical humanities courses—especially the introductory lecture—means that, anecdotally, more than eighty percent of my undergraduates will come from STEM majors. (We only grant a minor in medical humanities.) As a result, I have frequent occasion to witness exactly what contemporary students think the sciences are, how they differ from the humanities, and how they will or will not give way to future sciences. It should come as no surprise to readers of this site that the prevailing attitude divides the sciences from the humanities (with the social sciences splitting the difference) along an axis of “rigor,” which in most cases means “seriousness” and, ultimately, “worth.” As such, many humanists in my position (though happily few at my institution) embark on an evangelical mission to announce the seriousness, the rigor of our work. To make the humanities appear, in other words, scientific. (Some even embrace the regrettable phrasing of the “human sciences” to this end.) It would thus be intuitive to read Morton’s tweet into this tradition: the humanities prefigure in the present what science will look like in the future; they humanities does not, therefore, merely serve science (by bringing that future form into being)—rather, they are science (hence, the “human sciences”).
But I don’t actually think that’s what Morton meant. Or, at any rate, I don’t think that reading derives maximum power from the tweet. The more crucial part of Morton’s provocation is its reference to scientism—the unreflexive and dogmatic faith in science as Truth or, at least, as Reality. I think Morton is saying that science, on its own, is always already sustained by and as scientism. And thus a science that isn’t mere scientism can only exist by implication—can only exist, that is, as a virtual asymptote barely apprehensible on the horizon of actual practice—and it can only come into view by means and because of a humanistic antagonism sounding (in the Derridean sense) the scientific closure. On this view, the humanities become a dangerous supplement to science, not a supportive adjunct but a relentless adversary. This, as medical humanists, is what we should be doing. It is what we owe our STEM students: not despite their scientific passions but because of them.
In the medical humanities classroom, this calls for a reflexivity about our own discipline that might not come easily—at least not at first. It would mean, for instance, teaching a practice like narrative medicine alongside a critique in which the narrative arts, by supplementing medicine (as in the practice of clinical storytelling) also end up reifying medicine as a sovereign and legitimate entity distinct from the pressures and laws of narration. In that way, the bifurcated terminology would potentially sustain medicine as scientism. So narrative medicine in its traditional form would be taught alongside an analysis in which the empiricism upon which medicine rests is itself revealed to be governed by narrative and rhetorical pressures.
This, I think, is what we can do for our students—is what we owe them.
Pixabay. “Room Chair Lot.” Pexels. 20 March 2017.